A chimpanzee who legend has it played "Cheetah" in the 1930s "Tarzan" movies opposite Johnny Weissmuller has passed away at roughly the age of 80 at Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Fla.
The chimpanzee reportedly came to the sanctuary in 1960 after living with co-star Weissmuller for many decades at his estate in Ocala, Fla. Weissmuller, an Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer, played Tarzan in 12 films from 1932 through 1948. The actor recorded the famous Tarzan yell which is still used in many of the character's media appearances.
Sanctuary outreach director Debbie Cobb told the Tampa Tribune that Cheetah loved finger-painting and football. "He was very compassionate," she told the paper. "He could tell if I was having a good day or a bad day. He was always trying to get me to laugh if he thought I was having a bad day. He was very in tune to human feelings."
But if Cheetah didn't like people, he also let that be known. He could fling poop 30 feet with great accuracy through the bars of his enclosure, according to volunteer Ron Priest.
Although he had lived at the sanctuary for more than 50 years, Cheetah's history before that remains a bit of a mystery. As The Guardian points out, "Cheetah" was played by several different animals in the 1932 film "Tarzan the Ape Man" and 1934's "Tarzan and His Mate," the movies in which this Cheetah supposedly appeared.
Over the years, other owners have claimed that their chimpanzees were also "Cheetah." In 2008, writer R.D. Rosen debunked long-standing claims that a chimpanzee named "Cheeta," living with owner Dan Westfall in Palm Springs, Calif., was Weissmuller's original sidekick. In an article for the Washington Post, Rosen proved that the ape was actually born in 1960 or 1961 and did not appear in many — if any — of the films Westfall claimed he did.
British Writer James Lever spun the controversy over the fake Cheetah into a satirical book, "Me Cheeta: The Autobiography," released in October 2008. Lever told The Guardian, "Nobody seems to know very much (or even anything at all) about the chimps who played Cheetah. I rather think he'll be dying a lot over the next few years."
The character of Cheetah never appeared in the original "Tarzan" novels, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs authored 25 "Tarzan" novels which were published between 1912 and 1965.
Suncoast Primate Sanctuary Foundation was created in 1999. It took over the sanctuary that was originally founded in 1954 by Robert and Mae Neoll, former vaudevillians whose traveling show included magicians and boxing chimpanzees. The sanctuary is home to 70 animals, including chimps, orangutans, monkeys and several non-primates. It is open to the public on Thursdays.